Unless you’re a dedicated Washington-based backcountry skier or hiker, you probably haven’t heard of the Chiwaukum Traverse, or even the Chiwaukums in general, a subrange of the eastern Cascades between Icicle Creek and Highway 2. Though their northern flanks are visible from Steven’s Pass, the Chiwaukums tend to be overshadowed by the fame of the nearby Stuart Range / Enchantment Lakes region, and are nowhere easy to access. But despite their relative obscurity, the group boasts what is arguably the best ski terrain in the Pacific Northwest: grand vertical relief graced by a relatively large area above treeline that is neither excessively craggy nor glaciated. Because of this, a north / south transect of the Chiwaukums has become one of Washington’s premier multi-day ski traverses for skiers of a certain persuasion. In fine Cascadian style, it’s wet, wooly, and remote — and thoroughly devoid of the European comforts of huts, lifts, or beta. (America!)
Which is why over a month ago now, though still reeling physically from the Grand Traverse, I found it impossible to turn down Todd Kilcup’s invitation to ski the route in a day. Todd is typical of talented PNW ski mountaineers in pushing the envelope in an understated, under-the-radar style. It was a pleasure to share the day with him, which turned out to be one of the more memorable I’ve spent on skis.
Other than the two of us, Todd’s frequent partners and coworkers Pat and John joined us, intending to ski the route at a slightly slower pace and reciprocally facilitating a car shuttle. Arriving in the Icicle Creek drainage late Friday night, we slept out under shifting clouds and stars, laying out pads and sleeping bags in a margin of grass that yielded at least one tick (Todd ended up picking it off on the summit of Snowgrass Mountain the next day).
The next morning, Pat and John left our roadside bivy shortly after 3AM. Todd and I followed at 4, following several false starts in which I managed to sequentially leave my socks, gloves, and water in the car. Though we had hoped to drive all the way to the trailhead, we were disappointed to discover the road remained closed some five and a half miles from our assumed starting point, and so began the day in running shoes, shuffling over asphalt, dirt, and dirty snow. At some point, the snow became continuous enough that I was fooled into thinking I might make faster time skating. but after less than a half mile bare ground again predominated and I was forced to transition back to running shoes, sheepishly catching up to Todd at the trailhead proper some five minutes behind.
We climbed over 2500′ in two or so miles, moving quickly on dry trail with relatively few blowdowns for its winter of unuse, at least until the transition to snow near 4500′, where we caught up with Pat and John. Here, rotten, slushy drifts and thickets of slide alder presented significant obstacles, as did a few sporty crossings of creeks raging with snowmelt. But before long things began to firm up, and the forest opened to reveal a long, hanging valley, terminating in a col that was the top of our first major climb.
Skinning became tedious once we left the trees, with crusty (albeit manageable) conditions. The sun was rising, illuminating the stunning tableau of the Stuart Range behind us, but it had yet to soften the snow for us. Topping out somewhere to the west of the usual pass, which is presumably a mellower descent, we stripped skins and and made 400′ of steep turns in breakable crust before the slope mellowed and we began a long traverse to the base of the next climb.
We ascended to a second col, where we again dropped only a short distance before beginning a long, nearly flat traverse on east-facing slopes, here and there broken with spines of rock and groves of pine that required a change in trajectory.
More quickly than we would have liked, we began to gain elevation again, aiming this time for the summit of Snowgrass Mountain (7993′). The sun now high in the mid-morning sky, we began to feel both the heat and the day’s effort, taking turns alternating the lead and saying little.
After a steep pitch of skinning and a scramble over ridgeline choss to the true summit, we paused to soak in one of Washington’s more marvelous views, and watch Pat and John on their own traverse below us. The subsequent descent to the NE of Snowgrass was surprisingly steep, with snow that alternated between bulletproof and breakable crust. I took my time on the first few committing turns down its doglegged ramp before my muscle memory kicked in and let me fall into a comfortable rhythm.
It was another relatively short trip down, taking us only to the base of a moraine where we transitioned to crampons and kicked up an icy, shaded chute to regain the sunny eastern aspect of the range. Back on skis, we lost little elevation traversing to the north, and were forced to run across a nasty slide path riddled with frozen debris, cornices hanging precariously in the heat above us. Though originally planning to summit Big Chiwaukum (8081′, pictured at top of the post), our flagging energy levels and knowledge of a 1500′ climb near the end of the day left us content to peer down a couloir on its northern shoulder before continuing on to the next col.
There, we were treated to some of the best skiing we were to encounter en route, dropping nearly 2000′ into a long, scenic valley, dotted with lakes and larches. Though the crust that had been dogging us all day remained in places, it was predictable, and didn’t take too much body english to manage. Elsewhere, the snowpack was mostly consolidated and beginning to turn to corn. Whooping ensued, at least until the grade leveled off, the snow became slushy, and the scale of the final ascent — baking in the midday sun — became evident.
Todd went to see a man about the proverbial horse, and after killing the rest of my water, I began to skin up a steep, broad gully as quickly as I could towards a bench with a rocky outcropping and some trees that promised an island of safety. There was nothing to indicate wet slides of any sort were imminent from the snowpack itself, but the relatively late hour and high temperature (80+ in Seattle, we learned on our return) gave us little inclination to linger. Once Todd rejoined me, he took over, setting endless kickturn after endless kickturn through whitebark pines up the relentless, 35-degree slope. Attempting to avoid positioning ourselves above cliff bands, we trended right, blindingly shooting for the ridge and climbing well above its lowest saddle. “I hope we don’t get cliffed out,” Todd said quietly near the end of the ascent. I tried to put it out of mind.
Topping out, then, to see nothing but rolling meadows dotted with larches — as well as the only other human beings we’d seen all day, skinning slowly in the distance — was a relief. We skipped over to the edge of our sightline, and after following a rounded ridge half a mile, peered down on our final, massive descent to Highway 2.
Of course, endings are almost never tidy, and the first 500 feet of the Swath (a 4000+’ slide path prominent from Steven’s Pass, and the terminus of our trip) were rock hard and very steep. Todd tentatively lead the way, gaining confidence once he realized his edges would bite. After ten minutes of hopturns, sideslipping, and the “falling-leaf” maneuver, the snow softened enough to let us open things up, and we quickly lost 2000′ in fine style before hanging left to grab a logging road we hoped would let us glide most of the way to the car.
Two switchbacks and four portages later, it was clear our exit was going to take much more work than either of us wanted. Todd dealt with the situation by running all the way to the car in his ski boots; I plodded along at 2.5 mph, solidly over it. Over it until the moment I broke out of the trees at Cascade Meadows, 11.5 hours from our start and moments from a Dale’s Pale Ale, at least.
General beta: With a fully consolidated snowpack and a hard freeze, traveling north to south would certainly be quicker; possibly under 6 hours for a fit team with race gear in a hard effort. On the other end of the weight spectrum, bringing overnight gear and exploring some of the many alluring couloirs and summits along the route would be highly rewarding. I can’t recommend the area enough — but like any remote trip in the Cascades, don’t underestimate its difficulty. It can be a very 26 miles and 10K of gain.